Educators That Rock!: Sarah Brannen
We first met Sarah Brannen, children’s book author, illustrator and blogger, at the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) conference in Charlotte, N.C., where she cohosted a panel on censorship.
FindingEducation recently reconnected with Brannen over the phone to learn more about her first book, “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” (UBW), published in 2008. “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” features a young guinea pig, Chloe, who is worried her favorite uncle won’t have time for her anymore because he’s getting married.
“The fact that it’s a same-sex wedding is absolutely irrelevant to the story,” Brannen says. But according to the American Library Association, “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” was one of the top 10 most challenged books in 2008, due to ”homosexuality” and because it was deemed to be “unsuited to age group.” The book was also selected as an American Booksellers Association Book Sense pick for Spring 2008.
“Some of the stories that I write are about people, and I illustrate them with animals to keep the story universal,” Brannen told findingEducation.
fE: Before you were a children’s book author, you considered being a sculptor, and then a printmaker. After graduate school, you pursued a career as a painter. What made you finally choose children’s books?
SB: When you go to an Ivy League school and you put your work up for critique, one of the ways they [the professors] insult it is to say that it looks like an illustration. I listened to that. I thought illustrations were inferior. I should have listened to myself.
The thing I really wanted to do all that time was book illustration, little drawings, fairy tales. Once I decided that I didn’t care if it didn’t pay, that I was somehow going to make it work anyway, I just turned to doing nothing else but learning the craft.
fE: What impact do you think the Web has had on authors?
SB: Before you would take a course and maybe read Uri Shulevitz’s “Writing with Pictures.”
And maybe that’s all you really need. But there are message boards. You have questions you can’t find the answers to and you can ask them.
I spent a lot of time writing on children’s message boards in the beginning. And I’ve met people, like Lisa Kapelki. For a number of years, I never met her in person. We talked on the phone, but then I met her in person and she came to my house.
She was very helpful when I was writing UBW, for example. I couldn’t take any kind of [negative] response. So Lisa was the only person who read it in the beginning, and she had really valuable suggestions and feedback. She’s just been a great friend and continues to be.
fE: Jacqueline Woodson, author of “Show Way,” called “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” a “beautiful book that needs no explaining.” Do you think this book requires a lot of explaining?
SB: It’s a story about a little girl and her uncle, a wedding and a family. The fact that it’s a same-sex wedding is absolutely irrelevant to the story. It would be the same story if Uncle Bobby married a girl. And nobody in the book cares.
When I read the book to young children they’re interested in the wedding, what Chloe wore and what they ate. Details of what the adults do are just not very interesting to them.
I have had people with older children that have actually asked me to explain homosexuality to their children. I feel a little taken aback. Clearly they’re uncomfortable… and so I have done that, but I’m explaining same-sex marriage rather than Uncle Bobby’s wedding.
And that’s a discussion that the book can open up, too. It just shows that people are people and families are all the same. And if that’s a point of view that people feel comfortable with, that’s a good way to make it.
fE: In November, you participated in a panel discussion at the AASL conference with Stephen Chbosky, the author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Did any part of that discussion surprise you?
SB: We had been talking a lot about how our books helped children. Mine was helping young children, and his [Chbosky’s] teenagers. And a woman stood up and said, “You know these books can also help adults.” She told the story of a night when her father came over and was going to read a story to her child [his grandson]. And he pulled “And Tango Makes Three” [a story featuring gay penguins] off the bookshelf. And she and her mother just froze in horror, and decided to wait and see what happened. And he read the story and he got to the end and he said, “Huh. Two daddys. That could work.” She was so shocked, she started tearing up.
I thought, “Wow! A children’s book really can change children’s lives.” And it was rare to get a really concrete example of that sort of thing.
fE: One librarian, Jamie LaRue, used his blog to debate a patron’s request to remove your book. He wrote, “Stories help children name their fears, understand them, work out strategies for dealing with life.” What responsibilities, if any, do you have to children as an author?
SB: The term “responsibility” I would apply to the parent. I think it’s the parents’ responsibility to raise their child. And that might mean reading all the books their child is reading. My parents certainly did, and we talked about them. I think it’s a brave way to raise children.
When Tomie dePaola was talking about his choice of career, he said [quoting loosely] ultimately there just cannot be a greater role than to entertain, enlighten and expand the world of a child.
I took away “entertain” and “enlighten.” I think you’d get all tied up if you were thinking about trying to do that. But when it’s done, I hope that’s what happens. And I’d agree with him. I can’t think of any greater role in society.
fE: What are some of your favorite books?
SB: I feel like if I listed two of them it would give the wrong impression because they wouldn’t really be my favorite—they would just be one of a thousand favorites.
I’ll say one, because it knocked me dead when I read it, and that’s “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan.
I just flipped out. I had heard of it, and I finally saw it somewhere and I immediately pored over it and raved to everyone about it. I don’t know how he could have done it in less than 20 years!
fE: Do you draw an animal that has a voice and a point of view differently from one that’s meant to be in the wild?
SB: In a story I wrote about a hedgehog, every animal is living in the sort of wild situation they would actually live in, and behaving more or less the way that animal would behave.
Some of the stories that I write are about people and I illustrate them with animals to keep the story universal, like one about a mouse who wants to be a figure skater [which I’m working on now]. That’s a story about kids.
fE: Do you have any advice for children who want to become authors or illustrators?
SB: That’s really easy: Just read, read, read thousands and thousands and thousands of books. An adult might want to start reading more critically, but for a child just keep reading.
For people who want to become book illustrators, draw a lot, because it’s a craft like anything else, and it takes years and years to learn how to do it. You have to go to museums too, and look at what the masters are doing and what they did. A lot of the issues are the same, regardless of what my professors at Harvard have said.
fE: In addition to writing and illustrating children’s books, you photograph, paint and write news articles about figure skaters on tour. What excites you about skating?
SB: Figure skating is the best sport. There is always something dramatic going on. I think it might be the hardest sport there is. If you go out to run 100 yards you can probably do it. Not as fast as Hussein Bolt, but you can probably run 100 yards. But most people could not even stand up and move across the rink, much less do anything like what figure skaters have to do …with everybody just watching them and no back up. Amazing athletic ability and you add in rhinestones! What could be better than that?
Sarah Brannen’s Favorite Sites: